Arrows Up for Conventional Wisdom Watch
By Suzan Revah
Suzan Revah is a former AJR associate editor.
The weekly array of arrows is to many readers an unsettling puzzle, an inside joke they're not quite sure they get. Yet it is one of Newsweek's most popular features.
A seemingly easily overlooked box tucked in the bottom corner of the Periscope section, the feature that attracts the attention, and often the ire, of political junkies across the country is the Conventional Wisdom Watch, a weekly appraisal of the latest banter, bravado and blunders of politicians and other newsmakers.
For the past seven years, since the 1988 presidential campaign, readers of News-week have pondered the meaning of the Conventional Wisdom Watch, never certain if it is meant to be a joke or if there's some truth to their sneaking suspicion that, in fact, the joke is on them.
The Conventional Wisdom Watch is the brainchild of Jonathan Alter, the newsweekly's media columnist and a senior editor, and Mickey Kaus, once a News-week senior editor and now in the same position at The New Republic. Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent of Newsweek's Washington bureau and self-described as "one of the indicted co-conspirators" in devising the Conventional Wisdom Watch, describes the process through which it was born.
ÎIt had become an article of faith at Newsweek that the last thing we wanted to do was horse-race stories, because they were inherently silly, inevitably outdated and for us a waste of time," Fineman says.
So the Conventional Wisdom Watch, or the "CW," as it is known to the anointed, was created as a sort of sanctuary, a place where the magazine could join in on political speculation without joining the media circus.
"We got to thinking maybe we could sort of summarize this in chart form, and then everybody realized somehow that we were making a joke by doing that," Fineman adds.
And so he admits that the CW, with its smart-assed, thumbs-up, thumbs-down ratings, is supposed to be a joke, sort of. But exactly what kind of joke, or who the joke is on, remains a matter of debate.
Alter, the CW's main man, explains that conventional wisdom is really a political gray area. "There was this beast out there called the conventional wisdom, and you couldn't really see it or find it, but you could smell it." Alter says that while the CW wasn't originally intended to be funny, as time went on it became more of a lampooning of the conventional wisdom than a true reflection of it.
Fineman describes the delicate balance the CW strives to achieve each week as it attempts to place its proverbial finger on the pulse of American conventional wisdom. "The CW Watch has to be funny and ridiculous at the same time. It must always make the point about how inane the conventional wisdom is, while at the same time summarizing it."
George Hackett, a Newsweek senior editor and yet another co-conspirator, says the CW is often a joke on its creators as well. "The CW shapers are the people who write op-eds, the TV pundits and journalists who form this herd mentality and all sort of think alike," he says. "Part of the thing is to make fun of it, even though at the same time we're contributing to it."
Alter, who has worked on the CW from the beginning, says he is still amazed at how seriously people take the tongue-in-cheek tip sheet. "The really important thing to understand is that the CW isn't always wrong, but it is frequently wrong, in the same way that the stock market doesn't always reflect the value of a company. It goes up and down for all sorts of silly reasons," he says. "We like to think that most of the people in it, since they're major public figures, know that a down arrow once in a while comes with the territory."
There have been probably thousands of down arrows given in the CW's history. One of Alter's favorites was given to Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of New York City's Hasidic Lubavitcher sect. Upon receiving a down arrow during a religious controversy, one of Schneerson's aides called Alter to plead that it was undeserved. Some time later, Alter had occasion to deliver an up arrow to the rabbi, and received a box of matzoh in the mail as a reward for his good judgment.
Fineman says that "for a while, people were taking [the CW] with grave seriousness, as if an up or down arrow actually meant something." He recalls being in New Hampshire during the CW's early days and running into then Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont, who was seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Du Pont asked what he would have to do to earn an up arrow, which, Fineman says, "of course guaranteed that he got a down arrow."
Another of Alter's favorite CWs followed last November's election. A hot topic at the time was cynicism in the national media, and the CW, in its notoriously biting intro, admitted that it had made every effort to be uncynical, but had failed completely.
"We're trying to make fun of that cynicism in the political culture," Alter says, "about the self-seriousness in which people proclaim the CW with utter certitude, and then a week later it's turned 180 degrees and they sail off in the other direction with utter certitude."
Perishable though its insights may be, the CW still endeavors to drive home the farcical nature of American politics. "We hope people get a kick out of it, but we also hope that it crystallizes for them exactly what's wrong with a lot of Washington," Alter says. "If people hate the CW, that's OK with me..but if I can get people to be a little bit more sheepish about using this hackneyed political cultural thinking..then I consider it to be a success."